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‘I had mixed feelings about the resolution’

U.S. Congressman Robert Pittenger recently visited India as part of a delegation from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based think tank, to interact with government officials and Indian think tanks. A Republican, Pittenger, is a co-sponsor of  the House Resolution No. 417, which urges the U.S. government to maintain its policy of not granting a visa to Narendra Modi, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. In an interview to Gateway House, Pittenger, who serves on the Congressional Committee on Financial Services, also talks about terrorist financing and President Obama’s foreign policy.

Q. How would you characterise the recent developments in India-U.S. relations?

I would describe the current state of bilateral relations as very positive. India is obviously committed to democracy and free markets. I, along with the other members of the German Marshall Fund delegation, met with the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India and was very impressed with him. I have invited him to come to Washington DC to speak to the Chairman of the Financial Services Committee. I feel that the future is very bright for India and it is frankly in the interests of the U.S. to always have a strong relationship with India.

Q. The bipartisan Congressional resolution (H.Res.417) urging the U.S. administration to maintain its policy of not issuing a visa to Narendra Modi has generated considerable controversy. What is your opinion regarding this resolution?

I have signed this resolution because I have grave concerns. To my knowledge, Narendra Modi has never made any comments of regret for the riots and is not accountable to the media at all. I had mixed feelings about the resolution, but I went ahead and signed it. It may seem disingenuous because we have allowed certain individuals with dubious track records into the U.S. like the Premier of China Li Keqiang, although there is enormous persecution taking place in China today. The resolution is supposed to be a statement that the U.S. needs to stand for human rights and religious liberties.

Q. As the Chairman of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare and a member of the Taskforce on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing, do you think that we are winning the battle against terrorist financing?

The terrorist groups have a strong capacity to work through various financial channels. To counter it, we are working with our allies, the Treasury department and law enforcement agencies. We have probably intercepted just 10% of the finances, because terrorist financing is like the flow of water – when we block one avenue, these groups utilise another.

 Q. How are financial institutions responding to your efforts to curb terrorist financing?

The larger banks are in a much stronger position in terms of staffing to be able to intercept suspicious transactions. When it comes to smaller and mid-sized banks, they have to be more focused in their efforts. There is so much pressure on compliance issues within the banking industry that it adds an additional layer of complexity. Much of the terrorist groups’ finances move through individuals and informal financial institutions which are harder to intercept.

Q: Since the Patriot Act’s enactment in 2001, there are concerns that civil rights have been superseded by the security considerations. Do you agree with the assessment?

Today’s terrorists are not backyard hoodlum gangs and to fight them we need good intelligence. It would be naive to think that we can win the war against terror without technology. I have read in classified government documents that fifty four attacks were prevented because we were able to intercept the terrorist communications. Of these fifty four, twelve attacks were to be carried out in the U.S. and twenty four in Europe.

To protect the intercepted communications, there are three levels of accountability- the Congress, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts and the Executive. Moreover, there are only twenty people inside the National Security Agency who can access that data, after approval from the FISA court. In 2013, this data was accessed only 281 times. We have given proper commitment to privacy and continue to do so.

Q. The National Security Agency’s surveillance has drawn considerable criticism from privacy advocates. How do you respond to that?

The current President of the United States, before he was elected, was very critical of the then President George Bush’s intelligence policies. President Obama has changed one thing because of pressures from certain groups and that is giving private companies access to intercepted data.

In the private sector however, there is lesser protection and no accountability. But the common people have failed to understand this and that is because there has been such abuse of power over the last four years in the Attorney General’s office and the Internal Revenue Service, that it has created a distrust of the government. This has led to an illusion that there is greater accountability in the private sector. Companies like Yahoo! and Google have more private confidential data than what the NSA’s metadata bank has.

In my view, Edward Snowden, who has been hailed by many as a great champion of civil liberties, had a much bigger mission than just revealing NSA’s activities. He has done no less damage than an agent of a foreign government.

Q. Regarding President Obama’s foreign policy, the perception here is that he is trying to change it towards playing a more diplomatic role.

I believe that you should speak softly and carry a big stick. In the 1980s, the U.S. followed a twin approach – that is, we were militarily strong, but we also focused on economically weakening the USSR and we were successful. However, Obama’s foreign policy is like a roaring lion with no teeth. He has been deferential and has even apologised to adversaries. We should economically pressure Russia in every manner possible.

Q. Why has the U.S. Congress delayed the ratification of reforms in the IMF and the World Bank which will give emerging economies like India and China a greater say in the management of these institutions?

We want good accountability and greater oversight in these institutions. Our Financial Services Committee is discussing the role of the IMF. There is a resolution pending in the Congress on this but I am not sure if anything will happen before the general elections in the U.S.

Robert Pittenger has been the U.S. Representative for North Carolina’s 9th congressional district since 2013. He serves  on the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services and the Monetary Policy and Trade Subcommittee. Congressman Pettinger is also on the Congressional Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare, and is also a member of the Taskforce on Terrorism and Proliferation Financing.

This interview was exclusively conducted by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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